My (Long) Take On Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend Event 1

Last Sunday marked the end of the first Beta Weekend Event for Guild Wars 2 (although I still think it should be named PPBWE – Pre-Purchasers Beta Weekend Event). Except for one glaring bug (a NPC was simply flying), the unbalanced scaling of some events and some personal issues with the sidekicking, everything went more smoothly than I thought.

Before I could join the event, I was reading the initial reports from /r/guildwars2 — it started in the middle of my working day, which was also the last day before my vacations, so I couldn’t simply walk off leaving things half-cooked — and what I was reading was “low FPS” and “high latency” complains. One Redditor also posted the cute “another ANet scam” about the beta (I’m serious here, but I won’t name names). But, to my surprise, when I finally logged in, everything was running pretty ok and the latency wasn’t even noticeable — probably because the people from the Guild Wars 1 Reddit Guild decided to pick a different server than the rest of /r/guildwars2.

The Hardware

Before going on, let me say what I used to play the game: An early-2011 MacBook Pro (running Windows in Bootcamp mode).

  • 2.4Ghz Intel Core i5
  • 4Gb 1067MHz DDR3
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M 256MB

It’s not a super-duper hardware, but it did it’s job: I could run almost flawlessly, with a good FPS (I couldn’t check, ’cause it wasn’t being displayed anywhere). I didn’t run FRAPS or DXtory. There was only one point in WvW where my FPS dropped to something you could count with both hands, when we were defending one of our towers against 50+ invaders. Out of that, even larger dynamic events, like the Swamp Behemot and a norn ice shaman (whose name completely eludes me right now) run really fine.

Cutscenes and Story-Telling

Sure you watched every video of the starting video — the “This is my story” intro — of every race, but it’s nothing like seeing the real thing. It is impressive and gives a good connection with your character — specially if you answer their personal questions thinking about you.

The other cutscenes lack this kind of connection, though, and I can’t find a good reason for it. At first I thought it was the borders in the background, but that didn’t seem too bad. Then I thought it was the lack of music, but there was music in the background. The only things I can think of are the fact that the characters don’t seem to be facing each other — the character on the left side seems to be interested in something behind the left shoulder of the character in the right side and the character in the right side seems to be interested in something behind the right shoulder of the character in the left — and maybe the fact that none of them simply stand still, always moving like they need to pee or something.

Or it could be the fact that cutscenes suffer from the fact that the early story doesn’t feel interesting.

The human story, for example: You start as someone trying to save the village of Shaemoor; you fight centaurs with very little knowledge of what you can do; you face wave after wave of those centaurs, only to finally fight a huge earth elemental. And, after that… you help farmers to water their crops.

I think that’s the biggest problem with the story right now, in my opinion: It starts with a high note and then simply drops it to the very bottom of a well and slowly climbs back. The human personal story gets really interesting when you’re around level 12, but at this point a lot has happened already.

The Norn personal story seems to pick speed before that (around level 7) but I can’t comment in the Charr story ’cause I only completed the starting zone tutorial.

So, in this mess, the cutscenes feel out-of-place ’cause you’re not really interested in the whole thing that it’s happening. So instead of pointing where the story is going, they feel like nuisances in the way of something you’d expect gets better in the future.

Loading Screens and Overflows

Yes, there are loading screens. They appear whenever you change zones but doesn’t seem to take too long to load. In a way, they work the same way loading screens worked in Guild Wars 1, except that instead of loading a personal instance of the map, it loads you into a zone with more people. And those maps are huge. You could spend about 3 hours going around, doing dynamic events without ever leaving the zone — I spend those 3 days with basically 2 characters and I basically didn’t leave the first map.

The loading screen also offers some information about your progress in the map: How many portals you unlocked already, how many “points of interest” you found, how many skill points you captured… that kind of stuff. For completionists, it must be a nightmare.

This breakdown of maps — using portals instead of making a very huge map with stitched maps like in WoW — works with ArenaNet idea of “overflow server”. When you try to enter a map, if there are too many people in it, the game will offer you to move to another server or stay in the queue. Staying in the queue works exactly like WoW: You’re put in a list and have to way till someone leaves the map so you can join — which, as I pointed, are huge enough to keep someone busy for at least 3 hours; if you take the option of going to another server, you’ll actually enter the map which belongs to another server while you wait in the queue. In my playtime, I got into overflow servers a lot of times but only saw the message saying that I could return to my own server three times. Once you accept returning to your own server, you’ll be teleported to the nearest unlocked waypoint — which isn’t that good, in my humble opinion. I’d prefer being teleported to the exact location in the other map, but I understand why things work this way (they just reuse the part where you personally select the waypoint).

I can see one potential problem with overflow servers: Because they actually belong to another server, you could steal space from people of that server. Imagine this: A lot of people from Server A decide to go to the same map. Because the map doesn’t support that many people, they are relocated to the map on Server B. But now some people in Server B decide to enter the map but need to be “overflowed” ’cause there are a lot of people there already, so their join Server C. The system avoids the queuing problem, but also creates a cascade problem that may be hard to solve.

One weird, funny and/or scary about the loading screens was that you could hear some weird phrases while the map was loading. Phrases such as a happy female “I can outrun a centaur!”, a somewhat surprised male “I feel… stronger” and a creepy male “Hello pretty” could be heard while the progress bar advanced. Sure it’s fun trying to figure out where you heard that before but it also gives the impression that something is going on and you’re missing it because you’re trapped in a loading screen.

Waypoints

As I said, you need to unlock waypoints to be able to use them. To use them, you’re charged a very small fee — except inside the cities, which have about 4 or 5 waypoints and can be used freely.

Waypoints were used against the notion that the game needs mounts — a discussion that even went inside the game, while I was in one overflow server. If those were positioned properly and the number was large enough, there would be no need for mounts. Well, they are not positioned everywhere, near every large dynamic event and their numbers are not monstrous, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong with them.

I noticed that there were waypoints near every single step of your personal story: If you need to find an amulet in an instance around the map, there will be a waypoint pretty close of the instance entrance. But they are not near every large dynamic event and, if you die in one of those, you’ll have some walk to do (some walk, not “quite a walk”). I can see that this was done to not trivialize such events but I do expect that people will complain about the sparseness of waypoints nonetheless.

Dynamic Events, Hearts and Your Personal Story

Quick recap of what are Dynamic Events: They are like quests, except that you don’t need to talk to a NPC to get the quest, they chain into other events like quest-chains but don’t require that you pick the very first quest to join the quest-chain and you’re immediately rewarded upon completion.

Thing is, about dynamic events in this particular beta weekend, they seemed to be over repetitive. For example, while going for a quest in my human personal story, I found a escort mission. So I followed the group doing it, got my reward at the end and went back to following my personal story, which took me back to the start of said escort event. But, in this process, I found out that the same guy was trying to do the same path again. I discussed it with the guild and it seemed to be some “epidemic” process — every event seemed to happen more often than it should. My guess is that ArenaNet pumped the dynamic event occurrences to have mode data to analyze them.

Hearts are a special kind of dynamic events. They are tied to a location or NPC and they give you a “friendly” status with the identity NPC, which will allow you to buy and sell stuff. You could do things like collecting apples, watering the crops or pulling worms out of the fields. One thing I found out is that there are more than one event tied to a heart: In the human zone, I found one NPC requesting to either kill bats or kill spiders. In the second time I was running around — when I was already friendly with them — I went to the same place, but this time the NPC was asking to collect apples for pies. Small flavor, but it means you have more stuff to do than simply go there one time and forget the place exists.

And, on top of that, you have your personal story. The personal story is tied to your race and happens all in instantiated events — so they don’t need a full scaling and you can’t bring your whole guild to help you with something. But the problem I found with the personal story is that it was leveling faster than my character. At some point, the game suggested that I needed to be level 11 to complete the instance, while I was level 10. I went anyway and found it really hard. After that, I was level 11, but the next step suggested level 14. Then I went all the way to the quest point on foot, instead of using waypoints, in the hopes of finding lots of dynamic events to gain some levels and make my life easier. And I didn’t find any.

Downscaling happens all the time (you lose some stats when your level is higher than the location in question) so I can’t really understand why the personal story isn’t considered a single thing: If you want to only do your personal story — and only the personal story — you should still be able to complete it without any worries of being too low level to complete them. If you end up doing some dynamic events in the middle, that would be no problem, as you’d end up being downscaled to the story. Otherwise, you’d end up having to “grind” levels, which is exactly what ArenaNet said they want to avoid.

One thing that it was harder to see and that’s something ArenaNet is pushing is the social part of dynamic events (and hearts, but not so much in the personal story): The fact that you’re not competing against other people. You can see if it you’re paying attention but, again, it requires that you pay attention to realize that.

For example, in one event, I had to remove graffiti in the walls of a city. So I went to one wall were I saw a graffiti and erased it. I moved a bit back to look for another graffiti to erase and saw another player coming along and doing the same animation I did when I was erasing it, but I couldn’t see anything in that wall. It clearly shows that we both saw the same thing in the beginning and that I didn’t had to rush this other person to clear the graffiti before him — we both had access to it. But, again, I was paying attention and I had previous knowledge that things are shared.

And “sharing is possible” is maybe the hardest wall Guild Wars 2 will hit. Some people won’t know, beforehand, that things can be shared, that I can jump in the middle of their fight and they won’t lose anything but they will start bitching that their rewards weren’t so good because I jumped to help — which is absolutely untrue.

Also, I’m not sure if it was the fact that we were all pre-purcharsers and, thus, have some knowledge about the game already, but one event really redeemed the whole MMO genre to me: It was a heart event in the Norn lands, on the top of a mountain. The event basically required that you returned rabbit food, which was stored in bags around the place, to a NPC or scare rabbits away. The event was set in a way that once you picked a food bag, you’d move slowly, and some rabbits from hundreds of holes in the area would popup and jump on you, making you drop your bag, and then eat the food. But, if you’re not carrying a bag, you can scare the rabbits approaching someone carrying it, thus helping that person in completing their event — and you increase your progress doing any of those. And why it felt so redeeming? Well, half way through it I noticed that I didn’t need to carry the bags — if someone was carrying one, I could simply tag along and scare the rabbits. And so I did. Sometimes I wasn’t fast enough to scare the rabbits, but I’d manage to salvage the bag and deliver it. It was a win — for me — either way. But then, when I was done and hearts have been won, I decided to stick around and help others — just for the sake of it. I’d tag with someone and follow them around, with my camera looking to the ground, trying to scare the rabbits. If I got a bag, I’d carry it all the way to NPC and then drop in the ground, where the rabbits wouldn’t reach, so someone else could deliver it. Yeah, good-guy-me. But thing is, even before I completed my part of the event, there were other people doing the same! There were people not rushing to bags, trying to pick it before anyone else: Some of us were sitting around waiting for someone to pick a bag to help them deliver and complete their part of event. And not a single freaking word was said — We were doing it because we saw we could help each other instead of competing.

Sure it will be a pain to do that event if you’re alone but at that point, with 7 people around… it was magical.

WvW leveling

When I was stting at level 4, my guild decided to try WvW. The process is quite simple and just requires passing through a tutorial about how to revive friends and finish downed enemies the first time. Already at this point, you’re upscaled to level 80. Everything is nice and dandy, but that only changes your stats, not your gear or your rewards — the rewards at still enough for your level, including gold rewards.

To understand WvW you must know that you can defend keeps without the help of any special mechanics, due the huge amount of health doors and walls have. To break those, you need special things, like hams and catapults, which require a blueprint and supplies. Blueprints are acquired with gold and then built using supplies, and supplies can be gathered by anyone in a captured supply camp. So what a level 4 upscaled to level 80 but still getting rewards for a level 4 can do? Basically, just carry supplies. You don’t make enough gold to buy the blueprints and your gear is not scaled, so you damage and resistance are pretty low.

I understand that those things need to work this way to avoid exploitation: If a low level could earn my gold to help with blueprints or carry more supplies than anyone else, one could join WvW as low level, get lots of gold, never buy a blueprint and go back to PvE and buy everything he/she needs. Or someone in some guild just keeps recreating low levels to carry more supplies/earn more gold just to keep providing the group with “vehicles” to invade bases.

Not only that, but being there as a low level also prevented me form learning my weapon skills. Your weapon skills are earned by what seems to be kill count or percentage of damage done to one thing. But since you’re using low level weapons, you’re doing really low damage and contributing very little in the total destruction. As an example, I found a scepter for my Guardian in the WvW world, so I only had one skill available. Even after getting two bases, going after two boses and capturing a supply depot, I still only unlocked the second skill. Just as comparison, after I returned to the PvE of my level, I unlocked everything, including the off-hand skills, in about 15 minutes.

Sounds, Effects and Combat

Even before this beta weekend, a lot of people were complaining about the pistol sounds being too loud, from the press beta weekend. Well, even after 2 minutes inside the game, I had to lower the effect volume to about half of it. I had the feeling that every effect was too loud.

And it’s not just the aural effects that need to be toned down. I know people were complaining about how huge the visual effects were affecting the screen, but I didn’t realize it would affect my combat.

Let me jump into combat here a bit to help you understand what I mean: Combat is not static, you need to keep an eye on what is going on around you: The mobs will telegraph huge attacks so you can dodge and bad zones will have red outlines in the ground.

Now back to the effects: When you’re doing melee — one thing every profession can do — it makes it really hard to see those telegraphs due the amount of particles flying around the mobs, so you never is really sure when to dodge. And you can’t keep dodging all the time due the limited use of endurance. You don’t even know when to use your “strike back” skill (which some professions have) due its cooldown and, again, the fact that you can’t really see when to use it.

On the other hand, when you’re in ranged combat — again, something every profession can do — all you need to know is “is there a red outline under my feet?” Sure you miss some shots when the mob changes direction — and the farther away, the easier it is to miss — but still, you end up with more survivability. And a dead melee does a lot less damage than a live ranger.

Selling, Buying, Gathering and Crafting

Every one have all the three gathering abilities: grab herbs, wood and ores. But you can only have 2 crafting diciplines at one point — and switching doesn’t lose any progress you made.

But the thing is: Why would you, for example, cut down wood, when you’re only interested in cooking and armorsmithing? Well, to sell it, duh! But more than that, you don’t need to simply carry all this all the time: The Trading Post (Guild Wars 2 auction house) is available everywhere. Low in bag space? Press “O”, bring the Trading Post interface, select the things you don’t need sell them. Someone was looking for those materials? Sell them straight away and then just go to the trading post official later and grab your earned gold.

To be able to gather materials, you need special gear: For plants, you need a sickle; for wood, an axe; and, for ore, a pickaxe. Those items can be bought in most Merchants and have a use count. There are different qualities of such objects, which I think are required for different types of nodes — which could explain why I kept getting “ruined ore” when trying to mine a silver vein.

Also, crafting. It uses a system similar to the alchemy system in Skyrim. Unfortunately, at least in some low levels, some diciplines are really not interesting. Weaponsmith? Well, there is this thing called “Greatsword blade” and a “Greatsword hilt”… I mean, there is no way to wonder that you need to combine those two to make a greatsword. It probably gets better at higher levels. I went up to level 80 with my cooking and found funny things like mixing potatoes with a bag of salt makes french fries. Or water, flour and yeast makes bread and bread and red meat makes hamburger. It’s a pain till you find things that combine and are up to your level (more than once I found that mixing onions with anything would require cooking level 100 or higher) but those little gems when you finally combine up to four things and you make something new are really interesting and rewarding.

All the stations required to make anything are available in several places — including some outposts in the middle of nowhere — and are clearly indicated by icons in the world map and the minimap. Also, special vendors, like merchants, armorsmiths and weaponsmiths are also indicated with dots in maps, each one with a different color, so you know if you’re going to find a vendor with possibly better gear in the outpost nearby or you should go somewhere else.

Exploration

The game gives emphasis in exploration: You need to explore to find some dynamic events, you can go around finding nodes to level your disciplines… You know the drill.

But thing is, sometimes exploring can be damn fun! At some point, I was just going around when I saw some large broken pipe and decided to check if I could fit in there. And guess what: I could and there it was actually a path to an outpost. This kind of thing happens everywhere: You are strolling around when something stands out and gives you some direction on something that may be interesting in the future.

Not only that, but if you have some knowledge of the game, something you saw before, you can probably find some event happening by just going around. As an example, while I was strolling nearby Divinity’s Reach, the human capital, I saw a pumping station, indicated with an “interest point” in the map. Nothing was going on that the time. But later, when I was going after a mission in my personal story, one of the guards at Divinity’s Reach entrance said “Blergh, this water tastes awful!” It suddenly hit me that there was something wrong with the pumping station — and the fact that I heard in one of the interviews that bandits could poison the water surely helped with that — and there I went. And yup, dynamic event happening.

So even when you’re just walking around, you can get hints of dynamic events happening by simply walking into some NPC.

Gem Store

The gem store was available in this test and you could take as many pictures are you wanted. Also, you could request 2000 gems, something I didn’t do ’cause I didn’t felt necessary at this point. One thing worried me, though:

At first, I thought gems were like normal items and, to sell them, you’d have to go to the Trading Post and then fight for gold with everyone else that wanted to sell them. But there is a special place to trade them for gold (and gold for gem) and it seems it works like the material traders in Guild Wars 1: If everyone is selling some stuff, the price goes down; if people are buying, the price goes up. And I felt that you really can buy a gazillion gems in the first day and make a bajillion gold straight away.

I can see that it can work on the other way: Even if the price of gems is really low and not worth whatever ArenaNet is asking for them and nobody is buying, you can still trade your gold and get gems to transfer your character or buy bags or whatever. It is a trade off, I understand why it’s there, but it still worries me a little.

Conclusion

After those two days, in which I didn’t even get near level 30 or did a dungeon, I had the general feeling is that, at least for the zones I played, all it needed was a little tweaking: tweak the spawn rate of dynamic events, tweak the damage mobs do, tweak the rewards from WvW, tweak the personal story level, tweak the number of dynamic events in some zones; tweak the location of some dynamic events… Everything else felt solid enough to production level. Surely, those tweaks are necessary because those are the difference between “this game is fun” and “OMG, that thing I’m not playing is totally OP”.

Also, the starting zone of Sylvari and Asura is not available, so we can’t say that those events are balanced. And no idea on how things go after level 30. We know that ArenaNet doesn’t want to show everything — it isn’t a demo, it’s beta — but the quality level shown so far it’s pretty good. And the game is pretty interesting.

But the biggest problem with this beta weekend is the fact that it was just a weekend. That is, surely, a huge error that I hope ArenaNet fixes soon.